Thursday, September 23, 2010

The persistence of memory?

by Jessica

Yesterday someone asked me what novels I’d read while on vacation. I thought for a moment and rattled off three: Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss; Zoe Ferraris’ City of Veils; Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms. Hours later, I realized that I’d completely forgotten two others: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark. It’s true that I liked both and loved neither, but they were not so forgettable as to merit oblivion. I wish I could blame my literary amnesia on the impending arrival of a second baby (I am mightily pregnant and soon to deliver) but my ability to forget plotlines, characters, surprise endings, etc. predates the lethe-like mix of hormones now coursing through my bloodstream, and indeed motherhood period.
The year I moved to Cairo, I kept a journal that for some six months included a running tally of the books I read. Perusing the list, it is clear that the recall problem is not a recent one. It seems I’ve been forgetting books for much of my professional life. (Books I read as a child or in college/graduate school, however, have proven to be stickier.) And yet ironically, before I paused to remember all the books I forgot, I believed I had a good memory. Perhaps I’ve conveniently forgotten all evidence to the contrary.

Which is why I was so relieved to read James Collins’ essay in this past Sunday’s NYTBR, “The Plot Escapes Me.”  Like Collins, there are books I clearly remember loving, and yet when I am called upon to reconstruct the storyline, or a particular character, I’m at a loss. The good news is that at least one expert believes that the experience of reading is not so evanescent as we might fear, that the books we devour, adore and forget are not simply lost. Collins quotes Marianne Wolf, professor of child development at Tufts, who says that although we may not have instant recall, “The information you get from a book is stored in networks. We have an extraordinary capacity for storage, and much more is there than you realize. It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.”

I’d like to believe this is true, that some legacy of what we read persists, but rather worry that it isn’t. What do you think? Do the books we read affect us, even if we can’t remember them?


  1. Ever since The Shining, I've had a different feelings about topiaries and will never stay in room 237 at a hotel.

  2. Every experience affects us -- though we may not know it.

  3. Books are like food. I can't recall everything I ate my entire life, but all that food, whether I ate Twinkies and coke or vegetables and rice, has affected my growth and development- for better or worse.

    We are what we read, eat, watch, consume.

  4. Liesl said it perfectly. Everything affects us, but some things affect us more--and these are the things we tend to remember.

    I'd say it even happens to me as a writer. Occasionally I'll come with ideas, only to realize I've read the exact thing before--only I can't remember where. I was affected by the idea even if I can't remember the source.

  5. I say yes, because even if I can't remember the plot exactly, I usually have some sort of feeling about it. I read a James Fenimore Cooper book years ago and disliked it. I honestly can't remember why, but I now equate his books to being annoyed.

    And then there's books I read a bunch of times when I was a kid. I couldn't tell you now anything that happened in A Wrinkle in Time, but whenever I hear it mentioned, it makes me happy.

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